Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need

If the new MacBook Pro and its amazing Thunderbolt don't blow your mind, you're not paying attention

From the outset, Apple's MacBook Pro has been the standard-bearer for professional notebook computers. Apple's extra-mile engineering sets the bar for performance, durability, build quality, longevity, ergonomics, battery life, and connectivity. For the past several years, Apple has had only itself to outdo with each new generation of MacBook Pro, yet Apple has still managed to set the pace, mostly with upgrades to materials, graphics, disk size, and battery life.

Not to take such advances for granted -- after all, the one-piece machined aluminum frame and dynamic GPU switching were among many unique and jaw-dropping innovations -- but where's the ultimate to-die-for model year leap, the upgrade so substantial that we may not see its like again for five years? As tight as money is now, buyers want to see double, triple, and order-of-magnitude level improvements to justify spending $1,799 to $2,499 on a notebook.

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With the new Thunderbolt MacBook Pro, so nicknamed for its revolutionary high-speed I/O port, that's just what you'll get. The 15- and 17-inch quad-core models deliver twice the CPU performance of Core 2 Duo, three times the graphics performance of the previous generation's Nvidia GeForce GT 330M, and more than ten times the external I/O bandwidth of 800MHz FireWire. Even with a base price of just $1,199 and dual-core instead of quad-core CPUs, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro still outpaces prior Mac notebooks in terms of CPU and I/O performance.

This brand of magic can't be conjured by Apple's competitors. Sustained innovations like the MagSafe quick-disconnect charge port, the industrial-grade frame machined from a solid block of aluminum, digital optical audio input and output, automatic integrated/discrete GPU (graphics processing unit) switching, and a five-year battery already have no equal.

Now Apple has integrated Intel's just-released second-generation Core i5 (13-inch MacBook Pro) and Core i7 (15-inch and 17-inch models) into its popular commercial notebooks. By doing so, MacBook Pro has picked up the power of Intel's Turbo Boost dynamic overclocking, Hyper-Threading thread acceleration, 1,333MHz of DDR3 RAM, large Level 3 cache, and integrated memory controller. Intel's speedy new silicon and enlightened bus design, combined with Apple's full-custom motherboard and software, delivers those 2X CPU performance gains bragged about by Apple and proven in my benchmarks.

In the 15- and 17-inch models, Intel's stellar CPU is married with the most powerful and power-efficient mobile GPUs on the planet, AMD's Radeon HD 6000M series. The 17-inch MacBook Pro and the 2.2GHz 15-inch model feature AMD's Radeon HD 6750M GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 RAM, while the base 15-inch model uses the Radeon HD 6490M with 256MB of GDDR5 RAM. Apple uses a clever and simple technique to switch between low-power Intel integrated graphics and the gaming-grade AMD GPU on the fly. This is central to achieving a verified seven-hour battery life across all models, and that's without cheating: wireless networking active, display at midlevel brightness, and even battery-draining Flash Player running in the browser.

If, in all of this, you can't see a reason to upgrade your notebook, maybe I can bring the point home: This might be the last notebook computer you'll ever need or want. After more than two weeks of continuous testing, it's hard for me to imagine what I'd want in a notebook in three to five years that MacBook Pro doesn't deliver right now. Whatever I want, I'll plug into Thunderbolt, the game-changing 10-gigabit peripheral interconnect that deserves (and gets) its own section in this review. I have no lingering doubt that a PC notebook maker might trump MacBook Pro. What Apple has done requires metal, glass, genius, and OS X. It can't be replicated with plastic and Windows.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Configuration as tested The system that Apple supplied for testing is the standard-configuration 17-inch MacBook Pro: 4GB of DDR3 DRAM, quad-core 2.2GHz second-generation Core i7 CPU, 750GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, 8X slot-loading SuperDrive DVD burner, and an AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. The price as tested: $2,499.

Because the configurations are virtually identical, nearly all of my discussion and conclusions can be applied directly to the 2.2GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro as well as the 17-inch unit under test. The more budget-conscious 15-inch model with a 2GHz CPU is obviously a tad slower, and it has a slightly less robust GPU (AMD Radeon HD 6490M with 256MB of GDDR5 memory). Even so, it shares the important traits of four cores, Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost, fast memory, and a discrete GPU, so any performance hit should be well offset by the cost savings.

After a couple of passes through this review, I'm going to indulge in a bit of shorthand for your sake. From here out, when I say "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro," I'm referring to the virtually identical 2.2GHz 15- and 17-inch models. You can project my findings to the 2GHz 15-inch unit (not tested), adjusting for the slightly slower CPU and GPU. I tried to weave assumptions about the 13-inch MacBook Pro (not tested) into the story, but my preference for facts leads me to acknowledge the 13-inch model's existence, describe its configuration, and leave it at that. It's a fine machine at a very appealing price, but with two cores and no discrete GPU, it targets a different audience.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU and video The 15- and 17-inch Thunderbolt MacBook Pro are nearly identical: Intel quad-core Core i7 CPU with 6MB of Level 3 cache and 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM (user-expandable to 8GB). Video is supplied by an Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics chip and an AMD Radeon HD 6000-series discrete GPU.

To simplify things, we'll say that there are two GPUs in these MacBook Pro models: the Intel GPU and the AMD GPU. OS X switches between them as you launch and close apps, depending on whether those apps are deemed to benefit from the GPU. How does Apple know? It is a single-source supplier for all developer libraries (frameworks) for such features as video playback, 3D rendering, image manipulation, and PDF formatting. Apple also developed OpenCL, a programming language that's used to accelerate computation by off-loading math to the GPU. Whenever you load a GPU-enabled application, OS X seamlessly switches to the AMD GPU, and it keeps the AMD GPU in control until you close all GPU-enabled apps. The AMD GPU also kicks in when you plug in an external display.

I don't know your working style, but for me, the only thing the Intel GPU is good for is the log-in prompt. Intel's not particularly good at graphics -- a point to remember if you're comparison-shopping for notebooks. A Core i7 machine with integrated-only graphics is not a worthy alternative to MacBook Pro.

In previous MacBook Pro designs with Nvidia controllers, the discrete GPU put out a lot of heat, even at idle, and drained the battery rapidly -- not so with AMD's GPU. I see a more dramatic improvement in battery life from switching off Wi-Fi (do this when you plug in Ethernet) or lowering screen brightness than I do from closing GPU-enabled apps to put graphics in Intel mode.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU architecture A mild warning for readers who didn't come for the science content: The next couple of sections are on the dense side, if only because they back up strong conclusions. If you find no beauty in the nuts and bolts, you'll miss nothing if you skip to the last paragraph under the "CPU benchmarks" heading.

This isn't the place to launch into a deep analysis of Intel's second-generation Core i7 technology, but a summary is in order. These are very new CPUs, released to retail by Intel in February 2011. They are based on a 32-nanometer fabrication process, allowing Intel to pack a lot of low-power transistors into a very small space. A single processor die houses four independent computing cores that run at widely varying clock speeds depending on workload and power management instructions from the OS.

Each core is capable of running considerably faster than its rated clock speed through a feature called Turbo Boost. For example, the 2.2GHz CPU in the 17-inch MacBook Pro can execute instructions at up to 3.3GHz if it can avoid getting too hot. Here's where the metal-vs.-plastic argument gains traction. A PC notebook's plastic case acts as an insulator, pooling heat around components, while MacBook Pro's unibody aluminum chassis dissipates it. The Mac is better able to keep heat-generating components like the CPU, GPU, wireless, RAM, hard drive, and battery (during charging) cool. In the past, this has allowed MacBook Pro to avoid the thermal throttling commonplace in PC notebooks. Today, it means Mac notebook cores can kick into Turbo Boost more often. That Mac notebooks are faster than PC counterparts isn't Apple fanboy mythology. It's by design.

Boosting the RAM speed by nearly one-third over prior generations, from 1,066MHz to 1,333MHz, figures significantly in speed improvements. This pairs nicely with the increase in Level 3 cache size, and it makes a RAM upgrade to the maximum 8GB a smart and affordable investment. You can upgrade your system's RAM yourself after purchase. Just don't buy the cheap stuff.

I elected to use SPECjbb2005 (Java server benchmark) as the primary CPU benchmark. This test simulates business transactions on a multithreaded host, providing insight into CPU and memory throughput and scalability. Progressive throughput benchmarks like SPECjbb2005 measure how much work can be put through the system before it slows down. You want to see significant increases in transactions as threads are added, up to the number of physical cores.

In server-class systems and clients with Hyper-Threading, I also look for a smooth downward ramp from the peak, indicating that the architecture will likely handle an overload of work without slowing down the whole system. To ensure a consistent environment, the tests were run with a maximum 1GB Java heap, which is just shy of what's needed to run 32 SPECjbb2005 threads.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU benchmarks I tested the 2.2GHz 17-inch Thunderbolt MacBook Pro against two other Macs: a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro and a two-processor, eight-core 2.93GHz Nehalem Mac Pro. The Mac Pro is architecturally closer to the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, and its results deserve consideration if you're looking at 17-inch MacBook Pro as a desktop replacement.

Note that the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro I'm using for comparison hails from mid-2009. Apple followed this model with dual-core 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro models, based on first-generation Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs and Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPUs, less than a year ago. Compared to current models, these have slower RAM, half as many cores and Hyper-Threading units, smaller Level 3 cache, and less robust GPUs. However, if you bought a machine just nine months ago, you're not likely ready for an upgrade. It's far more likely that you're carrying a Core 2 Duo Mac or PC notebook, so that's my comparison target.

The SPECjbb2005 benchmark results are astonishing. It's not all about more cores. Faster memory, bigger L3 cache, and Turbo Boost help push the 17-inch Thunderbolt MacBook Pro past Mac Pro in single- and dual-threaded tests (see the table of SPECjbb2005 results). You read that right -- for some workloads, a Core i7 MacBook Pro is measurably faster than a Nehalem Mac Pro. The new notebook's lead vaporizes once the Mac Pro's second CPU, bigger L3 cache, and split memory architecture kick in (the lesson: no single-socket workstations!), but any other result would point to faulty engineering. If you read my review of that machine, you'd know that's not a problem with the Mac Pro.

The Mac Pro redeems itself in the face of its DC-powered competition, but the not-so-old guard, the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, along with every notebook of its generation, gets thoroughly skunked, skinned, and shamed. Apple claims the new MacBook Pro is twice as fast as Core 2 Duo, my numbers back that up, and most important, it feels that fast. You'll notice the faster architecture most keenly with tasks that run from memory or CPU cache. Second launches of an app will be lightning-quick. Wake from sleep happens almost instantly. Most apps become significantly more responsive after you drive them a bit. That's because the activity moves most-used data from relatively slow memory (and even slower disk) to much faster cache.

As with all notebooks, the 5,400-rpm hard drive is the bottleneck. It's hard not to get impatient with disk speed when the rest of the computer is this fast, and Apple seems to recognize this. On the 2.2GHz 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro, you can trade the 750GB, 5,400-rpm SATA drive for a 500GB, 7,200-rpm model, no charge. The 7,200-rpm drive upgrade closes the performance gap between notebook and desktop, but at the cost of added noise, heat, and battery drain. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are available options that I haven't tested in MacBook Pro.

While Intel should get loud applause for its second-generation Core CPUs, Apple deserves the credit for bringing a 2X speedup (Core i7 quad-core compared to Core 2 Duo) to market with a seven-hour battery life across all three models. Absent a custom-tuned OS with scheduling and power management that are fully enlightened about second-generation Core i7 and Core i5 features, it's just slightly faster silicon. OS X makes these processors sing.

Incidentally, make sure you use the OS that ships with the new MacBook Pro systems. If you boot from an older Mac or image a new MacBook Pro from an old disk, you'll miss out on the drivers that unlock the architecture's potential.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 RAM; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with 2.8GHz dual-core Core 2 Duo CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1067MHz DDR3 RAM; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with two 2.93GHz quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs, 8MB L3 cache, 12GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM. 

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: GPU performance All benchmarks are controversial. There's no such thing as a typical user, so it's almost pointless to try to create performance benchmarks that emulate user experience. Instead, it's often best to try to push what you're testing to its limits and count the number of operations the target hardware can accomplish in a period of time.

Most GPU tests are based on video games. These are enormous fun for reviewers, but they bring in so many variables that results are tough for others to reproduce. It's impossible to know how much of the load is being shouldered by the CPU and how much is off-loaded to the GPU. I prefer pure GPU tests, and OpenCL, one of Apple's many patentable innovations made open instead, enables these findings.

The open source Displacement benchmark tests OpenCL and OpenGL performance by animating an irregular refractive shape. Taking the screen shot lowers the frame rate by about 20 frames per second.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete GPU, Intel HD 3000 integrated GPU, 1600 by 1000 pixel window; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT discrete GPU, Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated GPU, 1440 by 900 pixel window; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with AMD Radeon HD 4870 discrete GPU. Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro results are not directly comparable to Intel and AMD GPUs because a different shape is used, but do reflect relative performance.

I use the open source LuxRender as a raytracing back end for Blender 3D projects. It's fast, and the results are fantastic. The LuxRender team packaged its raytracer into a convenient benchmark called LuxMark. It solves the CPU/GPU problem by letting you test these components separately, but since LuxMark is a throughput benchmark, it also does a great job of testing GPU and CPU together. This is how GPU computing is supposed to be done, so to my mind, the GPU/CPU results are the most relevant.

Testing the throughput of the GPUs alone revealed that for the LuxMark benchmark, the AMD Radeon HD 6750M in the 2.2GHz 17-inch MacBook Pro (the same GPU is in the 2.2GHz 15-inch model) is about 4.25 times faster than the Nvidia GeForce 9600M that's in the 15-inch Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. You can see the results in the accompanying table. No GPU is an island, though, so it's the combined CPU and GPU tests that better approximate real life and, it turns out, make for a more stunning multiplier than Apple marketing dishes out.

According to LuxMark, when the Intel CPU and AMD GPU in the new MacBook Pro join forces, they make a machine that's 7.5 times faster than Core 2 Duo. Not many commercial apps -- Final Cut Pro is one -- exploit this capability. Most apps, including Photoshop and other Adobe Creative Suite components, use OpenGL for drawing and the CPU for calculating. As GPU off-loading, a.k.a. GPGPU for general-purpose GPU, finds its way into software updates, mainstream apps as well as graphics apps will start knocking you out with multiples of the performance you're used to.

When Apple put Intel and AMD together, it created a monster. In the LuxMark raytracing test, 2.2GHz Thunderbolt MacBook Pro is 7.5 times faster than 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete GPU; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with 2.8GHz dual-core Core 2 Duo CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1067MHz DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT discrete GPU; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with two 2.93GHz quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs, 8MB L3 cache, 12GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, AMD Radeon HD 4870 discrete GPU.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Thunderbolt The ports along the left side of the new MacBook Pro look familiar, but there have been some key changes. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models have SD card slots, which are rated for SDXC. With capacities topping out at 128GB and transfer rates up to 30MBps, SDXC is inching closer to specs for solid-state storage devices. SD cards don't insert fully into the MacBook Pro, though, and you might knock the card out of place in midwrite. If you forget the SD card is sticking out and jam the notebook into a bag, you could easily damage the card or the port.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro trades the SD slot for ExpressCard/34, an expansion card standard that allows peripherals to tap the notebook's PCI Express bus. The port also provides USB 2.0 I/O, so many ExpressCard/34 cards are merely repackaged USB devices. Peripherals that actually leverage ExpressCard/34's high-speed bus link include gigabit Ethernet, solid-state storage, external SATA (eSATA) storage, video capture, and PCI bus card cages. But there will soon be a better way to connect such peripherals.

The headliner in MacBook Pro ports is Thunderbolt, the aforementioned order of magnitude (and then some) leap in external I/O. Camouflaged behind a mild-mannered Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt bypasses all other portable I/O standards and bounds straight to 20Gbps (10 gigabits per data channel, two channels) of potential bandwidth. This is the sort of innovation that sets my mind reeling with possibilities. Anyone disappointed by the absence of USB 3.0 in MacBook Pro needs to appreciate that Thunderbolt, which even graces the 13-inch model, blows the doors off USB 3.0. Apple had a chance to be first to market with Intel's innovative bus, and it was a brilliant move.

Regardless of what you read elsewhere, Thunderbolt is flat-out amazing. The second-generation Intel Core CPUs, especially the quad-core Core i7, have the headroom to drive much faster I/O. Apple demonstrated Thunderbolt by showing Final Cut Pro, its high-end video and film editing software, working in real time with four simultaneous streams of HD content fed by a Thunderbolt storage array. Up to six Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained together, all through the tiny Mini DisplayPort connector.

Thunderbolt will see its first widespread use in IT shops with multiple MacBook Pros. Target Disk Mode has been extended to Thunderbolt, and indeed, the quickest way to see if your MacBook Pro has Thunderbolt may be to boot it with "T" held down. If you have Thunderbolt, you'll see the lightning and FireWire logos side by side. Although it wouldn't be the most cost-effective use of a Mac, it's interesting that this will effectively create a FireWire 800/Thunderbolt gateway. Apple said that Thunderbolt cables will emerge this spring.

Because Thunderbolt uses PCI Express signaling, anything you can plug into a PCI Express bus can be turned into a Thunderbolt peripheral. It's up to vendors, but with Apple's adoption of Thunderbolt, I expect to see the same kinds of peripherals offered for ExpressCard/34 (yes, including USB 3.0), and then some. For example, Thunderbolt makes Fibre Channel and 10-gigabit Ethernet practical, creating interesting possibilities for the next Mac Mini server. For the MacBook Pro, Thunderbolt will redefine desktop docking.

As you'd hope given the AMD graphics firepower that Apple built into most MacBook Pros, the Thunderbolt connector is still useful for driving an external monitor. Thunderbolt treats displays as part of the device chain and speaks to them in their native protocol. No special display is necessary, and Apple's standard Mini DisplayPort adapters (for conversion to DVI, dual-link DVI, or HDMI) still work. If you use the HDMI adapter, multichannel digital audio output accompanies video. All MacBook Pro models drive dual-link DVI displays at resolutions up to 2,560 by 1,600. Thunderbolt's there if you need it, but it doesn't get in the way if all you have is a monitor.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: A lone issue Wireless networking is well seen to by Broadcom components and well-placed antennas. The MacBook Pro's 802.11a/b/g/n radio is sensitive and power efficient, and Apple's drivers exploit its rapid multiband network scanning. Reconnecting after suspend is impressively quick. Bluetooth handles all worthwhile profiles, enabling tethering/modem, file transfer, serial port emulation, and high-fidelity stereo with remote control.

802.11 did present the single repeatable glitch encountered during my evaluation. Wireless ping tests between MacBook Pro and a Time Capsule base station revealed widely varying latency. In some cases, response packets lagged by more than 250ms -- latency that equates to forever in LAN terms. The lag was not present with an Ethernet connection or with a Hawking HWDN2 external USB Wi-Fi adapter.

I discovered that the problem disappears when the delay between packets is reduced to 200ms. I believe that OS X is aggressively powering down the wireless radio to extend battery life (radio is a major consumer of power), but that's opinion. Apple acknowledged my report and validated my tests, but a fix was neither deemed necessary nor made available by press time. Because the issue does not affect browsing, video or audio streaming, email, or other common network tasks, it may be purely academic, but I will continue to research it.

There's simply too much to say about the difference in user experience between the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro and the new Thunderbolt Core i7 models. It's my job to transform subjective to objective through benchmarking and other tests, but in the end, what matters is how the machine feels, sounds, and drives.

After more than two weeks of carrying and living with the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, flipping over to the Core 2 Duo model periodically for testing, the difference is palpable. Every task and action starts and finishes markedly faster, making each return to the "old" MacBook Pro a frustrating experience. Two years is any Mac's prime.

Other differences, like the higher-quality built-in microphone, higher-resolution FaceTime HD Webcam, and support for the mic on an iPhone headset cord just made the experience that much more enjoyable. The only changes I'd make to the test machine are an increase in RAM to the 8GB maximum, and perhaps a trial of the 7,200-rpm hard drive. I expect that these tweaks would handily close the gap between the new MacBook Pro and a desktop. When Thunderbolt peripherals become more commonplace -- a given in light of Apple's brisk sales -- the Thunderbolt MacBook Pro won't just be the only notebook worth carrying. It may be the only computer a professional needs.

This article, "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in computer hardware and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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